Tom Hanks is an American treasure. He's more than just a funny guy who makes great and memorable motion pictures like Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump. Now, the Oscar-winning actor, producer and director has turned to writing – and he's written a pretty decent book, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, about his obsession with typewriters.
Uncommon Type is a collection of 17 short stories written by Hanks on a variety of his vintage typewriters that examines the human condition and all of its foibles. He writes honestly and sensitively about many different subjects, including: a World War II veteran and his family in "Christmas Eve 1953," a rocket ship constructed in a backyard that takes four friends to the moon and back in "Three Exhausting Weeks," a California surfer kid who stumbles into his father's secret life in "Welcome to Mars," and a small-town newspaper columnist who shares his old-fashioned views while trying to remain relevant in an internet age in "Our Town with Hank Fiset."
In every story, Hanks sneaks in the machine of his obsession – the typewriter. In its review of Uncommon Type, The Guardian of London called his work: "nostalgic, conversational, fusty."
In praise of Uncommon Type, comedian Steve Martin wrote: "It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it."
"Sometimes it really does feel almost hidden," said Greene. "And in talking to Hanks, you learn that his thing with typewriters is not a gimmick – more like a love affair."
Here's how Hanks explained his obsession with typewriters:
"There something about it – I don't know, it's a hex in my brain – there is something I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling in that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing, and it does it perfectly. And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce's Ulysses. Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper," said Hanks during his NPR Morning Edition interview.
In the current New York Times Book Review, Hanks was asked which short story writers he most admires and what makes for a great short story:
"The Cheever stories, the Vonnegut stories, the Salinger stories (especially those I had to find online, before he became THAT Salinger). Bukowski wrote short stories that were prose poems, yet I read them as the vignettes of life that, to me, rate as full-blown short stories," said Hanks.
I came upon an advance reader's edition of Uncommon Type last June while attending a library conference with my wife in Chicago, which provided me with a chance to read some of these graceful and moving stories that are both funny and whimsical as well as filled with the right touch of melancholy. As others have noted, one of the central qualities of Hanks's writing is its "poignant playfulness." I'm looking forward to seeing Hanks in conversation later this week at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., as part of a national tour in support of his book. Hearing him read aloud from Uncommon Type – a welcome new voice in contemporary short fiction – will be the next best thing to having him sit in my home reading it aloud to me.
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks is published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. $26.95.
Photos illustration and Tom Hanks photo: Courtesy of Google Images.